Saturday, August 25, 2007

Consensus and Denial

The best know denialist movements have had a common thread: some powerful interest has promoted skepticism to protect itself. The messages they promote (tobacco doesn't cause cancer, the Holocaust didn't happen, natural selection has not been proven, anthropogenic global warming doesn't exist) all serve to protect somebody's profit or image (big tobacco, antisemites everywhere, big religion, big energy).

It's pretty clear, though, that they also tap into something fundamental in human nature. People want their cigarettes, national mythologies, faith, and SUVs. Three of the four cases mentioned each have powerful corporate sponsorship. Another interesting case, where such sponsorship is far from obvious, is that of those who deny the connection between human immunodeficiency virus HIV and AIDS.

Tara C. Smith and Steven P. Novella have an article on the subject in PLOS Medicine: HIV Denial in the Internet Era. (via DarkSyde at Daily Kos)


It may seem remarkable that, 23 years after the identification of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), there is still denial that the virus is the cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). This denial was highlighted on an international level in 2000, when South African president Thabo Mbeki convened a group of panelists to discuss the cause of AIDS, acknowledging that he remained unconvinced that HIV was the cause [1]. His ideas were derived at least partly from material he found on the Internet [2]. Though Mbeki agreed later that year to step back from the debate [3], he subsequently suggested a re-analysis of health spending with a decreased emphasis on HIV/AIDS [4].

HIV denial has taken root in the general population and has shown its potential to frustrate public education efforts and adversely affect public funding for AIDS research and prevention programs. For example, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was for many years on the front lines of AIDS education and activism. But now a San Francisco chapter of the group has joined the denialist movement, stating on its Web site that “HIV does not cause AIDS… HIV antibody tests are flawed and dangerous…AIDS drugs are poison” (http://www.actupsf.com/aids/index.htm). In 2000 the chapter wrote letters to every member of Congress asking them to stop funding research into HIV [5]. ACT UP San Francisco's position has been condemned by other ACT UP chapters, such as ACT UP Philadelphia and ACT UP East Bay (http://www.actupny.org/indexfolder/actupgg.html). Rock stars have weighed in on the topic. Members of the group “The Foo Fighters” provided music for a soundtrack of the recent documentary, “The Other Side of AIDS” (http://www.theothersideofaids.com/), which questions whether HIV is the cause of AIDS. The band has spread its message that HIV does not cause AIDS at concerts [6], and it lists the HIV denial group “Alive and Well” as a worthy cause on its Web site (http://www.foofighters.com/community_cause.html).


The ocean of stupidity is wide and deep, and my spoon is so small.